Socialists in the age of Scylla and Charybdis

You will no doubt be familiar with the expression ‘between a rock and a hard place’. That phrase, apparently, has its origins in labour history. According to one online source, ‘the phrase originated in America in the early 1900s to describe a dispute between copper miners and the mining companies in Bisbee, Arizona’. Maybe.

It’s a modern take on the myth of Scylla and Charybdis, described by Homer as two immortal and irresistible monsters who controlled the narrow waters through which Odysseus needed to pass.

I thought about Scylla and Charybdis the other day while I listened to a relative in the U.S. describe a difficult choice she had to make. She was hosting a small group of people in her home, and in accordance with social distancing advice, had suggested they meet outdoors in her garden. But her friends insisted on meeting indoors, as the air quality outside had grown increasingly dangerous due to wildfires spreading across California.

The choice was to risk catching Covid indoors, or inhaling toxic smoke outside.

It’s 2021’s version of Scylla and Charybdis.

Of course we’ve always had viruses, and wildfires are nothing new, but there are particularly 21st century aspects to the dual crises of climate change and pandemics.

We know that climate change is caused by human beings and that late capitalism with its short-term, profit-driven agenda is largely to blame. And as for the pandemic, the lack of affordable, universal health care even in some of the richest countries, and the absence of health care for millions around the world, have done much to make the pandemic far worse.

When the great socialist thinkers of the 19th and early 20th centuries wrote their books, little attention was given to climate and health issues. Nothing could have been known about the impact of human effort on the world’s climate. And the rapid advances in science and medicine offered much hope in the fight against infectious diseases.

The early Marxists, most notably Karl Kautsky and his contemporaries, took for granted that as capitalism grew increasingly ripe for change, trade unions would grow more powerful, social democratic and labour parties would win the battle of ideas (and elections), and the world would transition to the promised land of a cooperative commonwealth.

Of course that is not what happened, and capitalism became increasingly ripe and then over-ripe to the point where the actual survival of humans on this planet is endangered.

Things have gotten so bad, with the pandemic, global warming and many other ongoing crises, that no serious person is suggesting solutions that are based on the ‘free market’. Vaccinating the whole world or doing what is needed to mitigate and possibly reverse climate change, will require state intervention and international cooperation on a colossal scale. The same can be said about issues like migration, growing inequality, persistent racism, sexism and homophobia, and a rise of deadly, fundamentalist religious cults. There is no ‘free market’ answer to any of these problems — and everyone knows that.

The American socialist author Michael Harrington used to say that there could be little doubt that the future would be collectivist. The only choice was whether it would be bureaucratic collectivist (like Stalinism) or democratic (like socialism). I think he had a point.

In this age of Scylla and Charybdis, socialists have a unique message which needs to be heard. And that message focusses on the kind of collectivist solutions being proposed for global crises — solutions which must be democratic and fair, for all people, everywhere.

Our vision of a shared future for humanity rooted in respect for the human rights of all has never been more relevant than it is today.

This article appeared in Solidarity.